Interview with Jehudi Kinar
- Belgium has a complex political system that is difficult to analyze. It is a federal state and there are tensions between its two major populations, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. The country’s attitudes toward Israel and the Jews are convoluted.
- Israel has more friends in Flanders than in Wallonia. Several senior members of the Flemish Liberal and Christian parties have very positive attitudes toward Israel. The right-wing separatist N-VA party is currently the largest in Flanders. Its leader Bart De Wever is hostile toward Israel and has opposed the apologies of Antwerp mayor Patrick Janssens, a Socialist, for the municipality’s misconduct during the Shoah. Out of principle the Israeli embassy does not maintain relations with the extreme-right Vlaams Belang.
- In Wallonia the Socialists are the leading party and often take hostile positions toward Israel. Israel’s friends there are mainly among the Liberals, even if some of their leaders are also anti-Israeli. The major Walloon media also frequently display very problematic attitudes toward Israel.
- The number of Jews in Belgium is estimated at around forty-five thousand. Most live in Brussels and Antwerp. The two communities are equal in size but very different in character. In Antwerp, one- third of the Jews are ultra-Orthodox, another third are modern Orthodox or traditional, and a further third are secular. In Brussels, however, more than 90 percent of the Jews are secular. There are also a number of smaller Jewish communities in cities such as Ghent, Liège, and Charleroi.
“Belgium is a country with a complex political system that is difficult to analyze. It is a federal state and there are tensions between its two major populations, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. A few years’ retrospect on the country’s convoluted attitudes toward Israel and the Jews makes it easier to understand these issues in the present. This is the more important as many leading politicians from that time still hold senior positions.”
Jehudi Kinar was the Israeli ambassador to Belgium and Luxemburg from 2003 until the end of 2007. Before that he had postings in the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and Canada, and at home he has held various Foreign Ministry positions including political adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem. He is now willing to share insights stemming from his work as an Israeli ambassador in Belgium, which was and remains a problematic country for Israel.
Kinar relates: “I arrived in Brussels as the new Israeli ambassador on 7 January 2003. Five weeks later I was recalled by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Belgium then still had universal jurisdiction concerning crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. This was irrespective of whether there was any Belgian aspect to the alleged misdeeds.
“Under this law the Belgians were then still intent on prosecuting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Israeli chief of staff Rafael Eitan, and the former head of Northern Command, General Amos Yaron. All three were accused of coresponsibility for the murder of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 by Lebanese Christian militias. No case was brought against any of the Christian leaders.”
Changing the Law
“Later, under the same law, a case was also brought against leading Americans including President George Bush, Sr. Thereupon the United States hinted to the Belgian government that continued legal actions against its president and other high officials could lead to the transfer of the NATO headquarters from Brussels to Warsaw. Furthermore, all U.S. military shipments to Antwerp would be diverted to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
“American threats caused the Belgian parliament to change the law. Many parliamentarians wanted to continue prosecuting the Israelis, but ultimately understood that this was legally impossible. Thereafter Israeli-Belgian relations became normal again, and I returned to Brussels in April 2003.”
The Political System: Flemish Parties
As ambassador, Kinar had to deal with the country’s six parliaments: the federal one, the French-speaking community’s parliament, the Walloon-, Flemish- (a form of Dutch), and German-speaking communities’ parliaments, as well as that of Brussels. No political party is represented in both the French- and Dutch-speaking parts of the country.
Kinar observes: “Broadly speaking, Israel has more friends in Flanders than in Wallonia. The largest Flemish party in my time was the VLD (the Liberals). Its head Guy Verhofstadt was then Belgium’s prime minister. For an ambassador it is crucial to have easy access to a country’s political leaders. My contacts with Verhofstadt started immediately after my return from forced exile in Israel. We met during the break at an event commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto. He said to me: ‘So you are the ambassador for whom we changed the law.’
“Initially, Verhofstadt never went out of his way for Israel. This changed when he represented the Belgian government at the opening of the Yad Vashem Museum on 16 March 2005. Verhofstadt apologized there for the Belgian conduct toward Jews during the Second World War. He told me, while we stood overlooking Jerusalem, that he intended to bring his children to the museum. I later discovered that he is very close to his brother Dirk Verhofstadt, who has written extensively about the Second World War. More recently he has published an incriminating book about the wartime behavior of Pope Pius XII.”
“Another important figure in the VLD is Karel De Gucht, then foreign minister. Today he is the European Commissioner on behalf of Belgium, and in charge of trade. He is somewhat known in Israel and Jewish circles for anti-Semitic remarks he made in a September 2010 interview with the Flemish public radio VRT about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Washington talks that month. De Gucht stated:
Do not underestimate the opinion…of the average Jew outside Israel. There is indeed a belief – it is difficult to describe it otherwise – among most Jews that they are right. And a belief is something that is difficult to counter with rational arguments. And it is not so much whether these are religious Jews or not. Secular Jews also share the same belief that they are right. So it is not easy to have, even with moderate Jews, a rational discussion about what is actually happening in the Middle East.
“De Gucht added: ‘Do not underestimate the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill. That is the best organized lobby, you should not underestimate the grip it has on American politics – no matter whether it is Republicans or Democrats.’
“The man is very opinionated, but it struck me that his remarks were quite out of place for someone who knew how to woo members of the Antwerp Jewish community for his party and his politics. The fact that we could speak in Dutch made our conversations less official. It was a good relationship, though our views differed on a number of political issues.
“His closest political adviser, however, was Dirk Achten, a former editor of the most important Flemish paper De Standaard. In our first encounter he said he did not understand why the Jews should have a separate country. According to the European definition of anti-Semitism, denying the right of Jews to self-determination is anti-Semitic. Achten wasn’t the only politician who said such things to me.
“At the time I was also very close to Claude Marinower, a Jewish VLD parliamentarian from Antwerp. He had excellent contacts in the party and was very helpful. He has since, however, lost his seat and is now a member of the Antwerp City Council.”
The Christian Party
“Relations with CD&V, the Flemish Christian Party, were close at the time and are still so. An outstanding friend of Israel was the former president of the Chamber – the lower house of the Belgian parliament – Herman van Rompuy. He is now president of the European Union.
“Another friend is Yves Leterme. Despite the 2010 elections he still continues as Belgian prime minister, as for over five hundred days it has been impossible to form a new government. Yet another friend was Pieter De Crem, the current defense minister. One should also include former Belgian prime minister Mark Eyskens who, whenever needed, would prominently contribute pro-Israeli articles to the Flemish press.”
The Socialist and Other Parties
“The SPa, the Flemish Socialist Party, was led by Steve Stevaert, who was indifferent to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was typical for almost the entire party. There was one very striking exception, Fred Erdman, the Jewish president of the Senate, who was favorably disposed toward us. The current mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens, was at the time the leader of the Socialist Party. He apologized in 2007 for the behavior of the Antwerp municipality during the Shoah, which was very bad compared to that of Brussels, for instance. Janssens is quite popular with the local Jewish community.
“Out of principle I did not have any relations with the extreme-right Vlaams Blok, though they tried many times to contact me. My predecessors had followed a similar policy. The party later changed its name to Vlaams Belang and is still led by Philip De Winter.
“Another right-wing party is the N-VA (Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie), which in the 2010 elections became the largest party in Flanders. At the time it was already part of the Flemish government, in which its member Geert Bourgeois was the region’s foreign minister. During our first meeting he told me I should have relations with Vlaams Belang. At that time the N-VA leader was Bert Anciaux, nowadays a senior figure in the Senate on behalf of the Socialists. He has often come out against Israel. Toward the end of my ambassadorship, Bart De Wever became the most important figure in this party and is now its uncontested leader.”
When De Wever opposed Janssens’s apologies to the Jews, Kinar wrote: “De Wever has already on previous occasions shown his lack of understanding about the persecution of the Jews, as well as of the problems of the Middle East that he mixed with it. As he is a ‘historian’ by profession he should have known better.” Kinar added that De Wever always mentioned Jewish and Israeli issues together so as to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism; yet he remained silent about many crimes of the Palestinians. Kinar added: “Why does not De Wever mention the problems of Darfur or Afghanistan? Apparently he is only disturbed by Israel (and the Jews?).”
“During my ambassadorship, the Liberals of the MR were still the largest party in Wallonia. Several of their leaders were pro-Israeli and with those we had an easy relationship. Armand De Decker was president of the Senate and also of Uccle, a part of Brussels where most of the town’s Jewish community lives. The Israeli embassy is also located there. The finance minister, Didier Reynders, was always open and helpful. He told me that the late leader of the party, Jean Gol, a former deputy prime minister of Belgium, had been his mentor. I knew Gol well when we were both board members of the World Union of Jewish Students.
“The relationship with Louis Michel, the Belgian foreign minister before De Gucht, was far more complicated. He zigzagged in his policy toward Israel. Nowadays he is not a friend of Israel; nor is his son Charles, a powerful figure in the MR. Louis Michel also told me that Gol had been his mentor.
“Several Jews held senior positions in the MR. The neurosurgeon Jacques Brotchi is until today a senator’s substitute. He recently resigned as a professor from the Free University in Brussels, publicly stating that he did so because of the anti-Semitism there. Viviane Teitelbaum now represents the MR as a member of the Brussels parliament; formerly she was a member of the Socialist Party. Teitelbaum has published books on Belgian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.”
At present the Socialists (PS) are the dominant party in Wallonia. Their leader Elio Di Rupo was a big disappointment for me. During our first meeting I complained to him that while the Flemish parliament maintained commercial and cultural treaties with Israel, similar agreements had been rejected by the Walloon and Brussels parliaments. Wallonia had, however, such agreements with Libya and Cuba. Di Rupo answered that he would correct this after the elections; but he did nothing. As things look now, Di Rupo may become Belgium’s next prime minister.
“After the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006, Di Rupo came out with a press release claiming Israel used this as a pretext to start a war against Lebanon. The embassy responded by pointing out that the PS had never condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza on the citizens of Sderot. Di Rupo referred to this in the summer university, an annual political gathering of the party, where he declared that he would continue his political line toward Israel ‘despite the arrogant letter from the Israeli ambassador.’ That letters of the Israeli ambassador did not deserve a response was a trademark of the PS.
“Another powerful figure in the party was Laurette Onkelinckx, then deputy prime minister and justice minister. We met a number of times. She promised me to speak with Di Rupo as she could not believe that my letter had not been answered. Onkelinckx assumed there had been some sort of technical glitch. When we did not receive an answer from Di Rupo, I sent a letter to her. She did not acknowledge it. The fact that she had a Jewish adviser did not help us at all.
“Andre Flahaut, then defense minister, was particularly problematic. He is currently chairman of the Chamber. Flahaut was always available for meetings yet came out with very strong anti-Israeli statements. In later years he also took part in anti-Israeli demonstrations. Meetings with him were important because Belgium had soldiers in the UNIFIL force in Lebanon.
“Many politicians were surrounded by anti-Israeli advisers. This was not only the case with Flahaut but also, for example, with a Liberal like Louis Michel. He had a number of close advisers with Muslim backgrounds.
“A case apart is Philippe Moureaux, a former Belgian deputy prime minister and now mayor of St.-Jans-Molenbeek. For years he asked the Israeli embassy to provide Palestinian children from Bethlehem and Ramallah with exit visas so they could spend their vacations in Belgium. When I asked Moreaux why he did not organize a common visit for those children together with Jewish children from Sderot, he did not answer. A year later when he repeated his request, we asked the same question and got no reply. In June 2010, the not-so-young mayor (seventy-two) married Latifa Benaicha, who is of Muslim background.
“The most extreme anti-Israeli in the PS is Senator Pierre Galand. He has initiated many anti-Israeli motions in the Senate. He also heads various anti-Israeli organizations such as the Belgian-Palestinian Association and the Lay Action Center. Galand was also secretary-general of OXFAM Belgium during the period 1967-1996. Veronique De Keyser, a European PS parliamentarian, once declared that she wanted to strangle the Israeli ambassador. Many people thought she meant me. As she is a member of the European Parliament, I can clarify that she referred to my colleague who was the Israeli ambassador to the EU.
“Another important Walloon party is the former Christian Party, now called Centre Democrate Humaniste (CDH). It is led by Joelle Milquet. I had rather good relations with the party though they gradually moved toward political positions close to those of the PS.
“In Brussels, all political parties must have Muslims on their list of candidates in view of the high number of Muslim voters. The town’s mayor Freddy Thielemans, a Socialist, was always very correct in his behavior toward us. There were and are quite a few members of the municipal council originally from Turkey and Morocco. Many of these are hostile toward Israel.
“The Green parties in both Flanders and Wallonia were fairly small during my stay. The embassy did not have contact with them. The German speakers number only eighty thousand and are considered part of Wallonia. They have a small government with which we have excellent relations.”
Kinar offers a similar analysis of the media. In the Flemish press, extreme anti-Israeli inciters like Lucas Catherine, Ludo De Brabander, and Brigitte Hermans have easy access to most of the major newspapers. “The most anti-Israeli paper is the Socialist daily De Morgen, which is always open to anti-Israeli views. They published interviews with me correctly, yet clarified that they did not agree with me.
“As mentioned, De Standaard is the most influential Flemish paper. During my tenure as ambassador the journalist Mia Doornaet, then the paper’s Middle East specialist, was more than fair toward Israel and understood the situation in the Middle East. The other main Flemish papers were reasonably objective.
“The biggest Flemish weekly is Knack. I never encountered any problems in getting interviewed there. Sometimes it also published anti-Israeli opinions. Another Flemish weekly is Humo, which leans to the left but was also ready to publish our views.
“The very left-wing monthly MO receives subsidies from the Belgian government. It has for years been publishing anti-Israeli articles. We protested against this, and also when the Walloon and Flemish governments subsidized anti-Israeli educational material for schools. While our complaints against these publications were given attention, nothing was done about the problems even though some of the prime ministers of those governments wrote to the ministers concerned. Among these were, for instance, the Flemish prime ministers Bart Somers in 2003 and Yves Leterme in 2006.
“As for the main Flemish TV stations VRT and BRT, these were initially interested in hearing the Israeli ambassador appear in Flemish, which was unusual. With the VRT, a private station, one could develop good relations. The national BRT-TV was more difficult.”
“Many Walloon media are very anti-Israeli. One of the worst is Le Soir. Its ‘specialist’ for Middle Eastern affairs, Baudouin Loos, and its correspondent in Israel hold similar anti-Israeli views. This correspondent no longer uses his own name, which he did before arriving in Israel. Maurice Sarfaty is now known for many years as Serge Dumont. Although he changed his name so as to avoid accusations of being pro-Israeli because of his Jewish origin, he did not have to worry; his first pro-Israeli article has yet to be written.
“During my tenure the weekly VIF/L’Express was continuously anti-Israeli. Once they left out substantial parts of a letter I had sent to the editor. They however printed a reaction by Editor-in-Chief Jacques Gevers that was much longer than the parts published of my letter. When we made this public, many people protested. The paper thereupon published nine letters to the editor in support of Gevers and only one out of all the protest letters. We then found out that the UPJB (Union des Progressistes Juifs de Belgique), an organization of extreme-left anti-Israeli Jews, had asked their members by email to send letters in support of Gevers. By accident, this email fell into our hands. Later, because the paper was losing money, Gevers had to leave. Subsequently it became more balanced.
“RTBF, the Walloon state TV, was and remains problematic. From time to time they would organize debates in which the Palestinian representative and I appeared together.
“At the beginning of 2007 there was a great storm in Belgium. It damaged a monument in Brussels that symbolizes the four pillars on which Belgian democracy is based. The storm felled its pillar of ‘freedom of press.’ I then said publicly that this was symbolic.
We often faced problems in dealing with various Belgian universities. The main difficulties were in Brussels – both with the Flemish-speaking Free University (VUB) and the French-speaking Free University (ULB). Such difficulties continue in the present.
“Through the Jewish student organization, a debate was organized at the ULB between Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a Brussels anti-Israeli law professor, Eric David, who brought his own audience with him. The press gave little attention to that debate, which was one of the few occasions where someone could speak at that university in favor of Israel.”
Interviews and Articles
Kinar made it a point to try and get interviews and articles into the Belgian press that expressed the Israeli outlook. When he left, the Israeli embassy gave him a selection of these interviews and articles. Revisiting them recently, he again considered certain questions he was asked in those years.
“An interview I gave to Le Soir in 2003 stands out. I mentioned that Yasser Arafat had done everything to make Abu Mazen fail in the Road Map, which aimed to pacify the region and create a Palestinian state.
“At the time some in Israel were suggesting that Arafat be killed. I said in the interview: ‘Ariel Sharon had expressed his regret about such suggestions by former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Limor Livnat.’ I added: ‘Without supporting them, one has to understand them. Olmert sees attacks in his city every day. This violence is also directed at the buses that transport the students of whom Livnat is in charge.'”
Kinar remarks: “As in my other postings, I tried to interest the Belgian population in Israeli cultural events. Both in Flanders and Wallonia this worked quite well. There were many Israeli performances in the music, dance, and film festivals. Anti-Israeli demonstrations rarely occurred at these events.
“During my ambassadorship there were, however, a number of anti-Israeli demonstrations. These were usually led by the Belgian left and part of the Muslim community. The earlier-mentioned UPJB participated in them as well. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006 there was a large anti-Israeli demonstration, though that was hardly a unique event. We then also held a pro-Israeli demonstration in front of the embassy.”
The Jewish Community
“The number of Jews in Belgium is estimated at around forty-five thousand. The communities of Antwerp and Brussels, where most Jews live, are equal in size but very different in character. In Antwerp, one-third of the Jews are ultra-Orthodox, another third are modern Orthodox or traditional, and a further third are secular. In Brussels, however, more than 90 percent of the Jews are secular. There are also several smaller Jewish communities in cities such as Ghent, Liège, and Charleroi.
“In Antwerp, the Jews used to be mainly active in the diamond industry, but many are now supported by the Jewish welfare organization as the diamond industry has largely been taken over by Indians. In Brussels, many Jews work in free professions. The two communities also differ in political outlook. In Antwerp, Jews are more center-right; in Brussels, some favor the Liberals and others the Socialists. Their reactions to political developments in Israel are more left-leaning, in line with Israeli parties such as Meretz and Labor. One prominent figure in Brussels and in Belgium generally, Simone Susskind, has distinct pro-Palestinian leanings and served as political adviser to Minister Onkelinckx. Her husband, David Susskind, was one of the organizers of demonstrations for Soviet Jewry and was and remains more moderate.
“There is no national Jewish organization, though the Comité de Coordination des Organizations Juif de Belgique (Coordination Committee of the Jewish Organizations in Belgium, CCOJB) in Brussels pretends to be an all-Belgian organization, as indicated by its name. Antwerp Jewry, however, does not regard them as their representative. They have their own organization called Forum of the Jewish Organizations. Sometimes the two try to cooperate, but because of matters of prestige this doesn’t happen very often. The forum does defend Israeli interests courageously, while CCOJB is more restrained in its reactions. In each of the languages there are regular Jewish publications.”
Kinar observes that as far as the number of Jews is concerned, there have been no major changes in recent years. Yet emigration to Israel has somewhat increased, especially from Antwerp.
He remarks that during his ambassadorship he also sometimes came out against anti-Semitism in the country. In 2003, a Flemish newspaper noted that Kinar received their interviewer with on his desk a letter from a Brussels Jew, who a few weeks before buried his 95-year-old mother. When the procession started it was during a break at the nearby elementary school. The children there, mainly North Africans, saw the Star of David on the hearse and started to shout “Dirty Jew!” The shocked family wrote to the ambassador that they silently accepted the humiliation. The deceased woman was born in Hungary in 1908. There she had to flee in her youth from shouts of “Dirty Jew!” Now she was buried in her country of asylum accompanied by shouts of “Dirty Jew!”
Kinar adds: “One should also point out, though, that the Jews have many friends in Belgium. As far as Israel is concerned there is a Belgian Christians for Israel organization. Its activities are limited, with only or two events per year. They are closely connected to the Dutch Christians for Israel.”
Israel has no permanent presence in Luxemburg. Kinar could only visit there about every six weeks. He says: “Initially the relations with the Foreign Ministry in Luxemburg were excellent. In 2004, however, the Socialist Jean Asselborn became foreign minister. During the many meetings we had, he did not show any political understanding of the Middle East. He was chosen for his position out of coalition considerations and his background in the trade unions.
“We put much emphasis on relations with this country because every vote in the EU is nominally equal. The Foreign Ministry staff, with whom, as mentioned, we were on good terms, could not overrule Mr. Asselborn, who came out with the strangest observations.
“Asselborn has been for years now the most anti-Israeli foreign minister in Europe. In an interview he gave to Spiegel Online last 24 May, he described Netanyahu’s reaction to Obama’s speech (referring to Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders) as ‘arrogant’ and claimed Israel had converted the Gaza Strip into a prison.
“In December 2010, Asselborn suggested that the EU should freeze its relations with Israel. He was also the first European foreign
minister to welcome last April the announced unification of Fatah and Hamas and urged Israel to negotiate with such a unity government. Asselborn added that a new Palestinian government that included Hamas would be prepared to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
“In June this year, at the annual Foreign Affairs Council in Luxemburg, the High Representative of the EU led a discussion on the Middle East peace process. Luxemburg’s Foreign Ministry had invited foreign ministers from many Middle Eastern and other countries as well as numerous ambassadors to this discussion. The Israeli ambassador, however, was not invited, and it was not the first time that had happened.
“Luxemburg’s Jewish community is very small and actively pro-Israeli. With a few exceptions, the press was friendly. Fortunately enough we have an honorary consul there who is also personally involved in Israel’s economy.”
Looking back on his ambassadorship, Kinar says: “This was certainly a very interesting posting. It started with what was one of the most acute crises we’ve had in a European country. With careful sailing and navigating,
by the end of my tenure Israel had good relations with Belgium on the official level. Attacks continued, however, in other areas. As for Luxemburg, the changes were even greater. In 2003, nearly all officials took a pro-Israeli line. The new coalition governments, however, have made Luxemburg one of Europe’s most critical countries toward Israel.”
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Jehudi Kinar was born in the Netherlands. He attended the School of Interpreters in Geneva and also studied political science (African studies) at the university there. He moved to Israel in 1969. His first diplomatic postings were in the Netherlands, followed by Germany, and then in the United States and Canada. Subsequently he served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxemburg. At home Kinar has held various Foreign Ministry positions, including political adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem.